Behold, the Escape Artist! Death-defying man of adventure! No bonds can hold him! No trap can kill him! With a smile and a wink, he slips out of the tightest straitjacket, breaks out of the most hermetic cage, rises unharmed from the deepest ocean!
The Escape Artist (or Escapologist) is exactly that: a character whose ability to escape dangerous situations is practically superhuman. However, do note that it's not ACTUALLY superhuman: a true escape artist relies merely on skill, guile, and misdirection to make his escapes. After all, breaking free with Super Strength, escaping death with Super Speed, or surviving with Nigh-Invulnerability, well, that would be cheating, and this character is ALL about doing things the right way.
Escapology, the art and science of escape (and not to be confused with Escapism, mind you), has long been associated with stage acts since the early days of the 20th century, with Harry Houdini being the man to elevate it into a bonafide art form. In Real Life, stage magicians perform acts of escapology relying on both illusionism and actual skills such as contortionism, lock-picking, and even plain brute strength. As a long-time tradition of stage acts, escape stunts are suitably dramatic and suspenseful, utilizing the apparent (or sometimes even actual) danger to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, and giving them rapturous release when he manages to escape.
As a character type in fiction, escapologists will ALWAYS escape on pure skill. Though they may use tools to free themselves, those tools still require intense training to use, as well as a high amount of cunning to conceal in case of being trapped. They are also always incredibly nimble and of cat-like dexterity. This lends itself to excelling in other talents, like gambling (especially for high stakes), gadgeteering, misdirection, etc. Also, the ability to escape usually goes hand-in-hand with the ability to infiltrate, and so escapologists can usually be found as the mastermind or a high profile member of a group performing The Caper. Furthermore, expect an escapologist to know kung-fu, for when guile and skill alone won't get him out of trouble.
Because of its association with the stage, escapist characters are also usually pretty hammy and melodramatic. They tend to be roguishly charming to boot. Basically, if a character's gimmick is escapology, he's gonna be larger than life. Escapology is, obviously, quite a universally useful skill, so you see both good and bad guys relying on it, but even bad guys tend to be pretty charming and charismatic if they're this kind of character. They will ALWAYS show confidence in their skill, to the point of sometimes bragging about it or even using it as a signature of their character. There is no such thing as a timid or subdued escapist since their ability to survive traps and bonds depends on being brave and confident of one's abilities. Even when an escapologist is actually a very serious character, he'll still tell you to your face that a trap won't work on him. For example, Batman, one of fiction's greatest escapologists, may be serious and not prone to bragging, but if you tie him up, he'll be the first to tell you "This won't hold me for long."
Not to be confused with the 2013 BBC TV series of the same name, although it does involve this trope in the legal sense. If someone is escaping from prison, they're a Prison Escape Artist.
- Good ol' Lupin III. He's even allowed himself to be caught in order to later escape as part of a plan.
- Dark from D.N.Angel, being a Phantom Thief, is really good at getting out of traps of all kinds. There's one scene where he's tied up and gets out of the ropes in about thirty seconds.
- Swedish improv comic Hasse Alfredson occasionally used a gag about either working for or being the world's worst escape artist in his Lindeman routines. "He told us to cuff him, tie him up, chain him up, put him in a box, weld it shut, wrap chains around it, and toss it in the river...like hell he could escape."
- Scott Free, a.k.a. Mister Miracle, The DCU's (and perhaps all of fiction's) greatest escapologist. He has New God technology he uses when fighting crime, but he rarely uses it to escape anything. Literally no one, except possibly his protegé, has his level of skill in escape. He's so good at escaping, he managed to escape Apokolips. Darkseid's planet. Let that sink in. Because that was just his first escape.
And about that protégé—Shilo Norman, the second Mister Miracle, may well be even better. In his Seven Soldiers miniseries, he successfully escapes from many impossible scenarios. They are, in order: a black hole, the Omega Sanction (being serially reincarnated in his own mind, in ever more depressing and hopeless lives), and finally, in the finale, death itself, after being chained and shackled, shot in the head and buried.
- The wizard Zatara and his daughter, Zatanna. True, they possess magic as well, but they are both perfectly capable of escapology on their own and have done so numerous times when not able to utilize their magic skill. Also, Zatara was the teacher of escapology to...
- ... Batman. Always prepared with the right tools and skills, from lockpicks to acid to liquid nitrogen. It's almost a cliché for villains to put Bats in a Death Trap and have him "miraculously" escape.
- Also, The Joker can usually wriggle out of a straitjacket rather quickly (probably because he's had so much practice, given how often he breaks out of Arkham). In fact, this is even lampshaded in one episode of Batman: The Animated Series where he puts Batman in a Death Trap that involves a straitjacket. Batman gets out of it rather fast, and the villain comments, "They don't make straitjackets the way they used to...I should know..."
- Jack Napier, the cured Joker, uses this trope very efficiently in Batman: White Knight. During his meeting with the GCPD, the former escapes his cuffs during their conversation and shows his free hands by resting them on the nearby table as he threatens to file suit against the GCPD. This trope also serves to indicate that even the police won't stand a chance against the cured Joker.
- The Riddler is a self-trained escapologist, who looks up to Houdini himself. Notably, Riddler has been shown being able to easily bust out of prisons even other villains can't get out of.
- John Constantine, the Hellblazer, is a master of this, but uses more of his wits to get out of sticky situations.
- Calvin Rose, a former Talon of the Court of Owls, used to be an escape artist for Haly's Circus. By age ten, he knew fourteen different ways to escape from a straitjacket.
- Yorick, the Non-Action Snarker protagonist of Y: The Last Man, is an amateur escape artist and magician, which is the one useful skill he has that badass bodyguard Agent 355 doesn't. In his first scene, he's talking to his girlfriend on speakerphone while hanging from the ceiling and working his way out of a straitjacket.
- The various incarnations of Getaway from the Transformers comics are well known for their ability to get out of tight scrapes. Simon Furman ended up killing off several Getaways during his various tenures as writer, with the notion that it would be ironic if someone named Getaway didn't actually get away.
- In Athena Voltaire, the titular character met all sorts of interesting people thanks to her father's work as a Stage Magician. One was Harry Houdini, a close family friend who became her godfather. Since her own work occasionally gets her tied up by Nazis, having received a few lessons from him comes in handy.
- Averted in Aquila, where the titular hero has this ability thanks to divine empowerment rather than any dexterity on his part. Bonds and chains only work on him as long as he wills it, allowing him to be a Play-Along Prisoner until it's time to strike.
- Wonder Woman Vol 1: The first time Diana meets Priscilla Rich is when she's doing a daring escape from a glass box full of water wrapped in chains for a charity event. Priscilla is furious at the attention Wonder Woman is getting and tries to sabotage the escape by sneakily adding the unbreakable lasso to the restraints, hoping to kill her.
- In Girl Genius story Raised by Jägers, Ducky casually escapes from her bonds after being tied up for weeks. Her captor is annoyed that she could have done that at any time.
Ducky: My father's a locksmith, he thinks knowing this stuff is important.
- Basil Mouse, of The Great Mouse Detective, is basically just a rodent-version of Sherlock Holmes — so of course, he's also a superb escape artist, demonstrating it in the movie by escaping a ludicrously lethal Death Trap.
- Woody becomes a breakout mastermind in Toy Story 3; not only does he escape Sunnyside Daycare while completely unaware of Lotso's security measures, but he breaks back in and successfully helps all of Andy's other toys escape with him.
- Harry Houdini was an innovator here as in many other areas of escapology and illusion; he acted and performed escapes in five silent films and serials, the last of which, Haldane of the Secret Service, he also directed.
- Robert Angier and Alfred Borden of The Prestige take escapology to an extreme not even dreamed of by Houdini; although, given the second paragraph in the trope description above, one could argue that they're also the most extreme "cheats".
- Sartana has this amongst his many, many skills.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Captain Jack Sparrow has pulled this several times. Wiggling out of handcuffs via lantern oil in the second film, using the 'leverage' trick in the third and getting his hands free in the fourth and using the palm trees as an improvised catapult with him as the missile.
Jack Sparrow: You will always remember this as the day you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow!
- James Bond will always escape from the deathtrap he is trapped in, usually using a neat gadget in a clever way.
- Henley Reeves in Now You See Me is a magician. One of her acts involves being bound and then tossed into a water tank which she has to escape before piranhas can enter and tear her apart.
- Lassie Come Home: Lassie escapes from her kennel by digging under the fencing. When Hynes, the mean kennel master, buries more fencing, Lassie jumps over the kennel fence. When Lassie is brought back yet again, she waits until it's time for a walk, then she slips the leash.
- The Phantom of Paris: Cheri-Bibi is a stage magician who specializes in stuff like this. He slips out of handcuffs like they're nothing. The opening scene has him trussed up with a rope, only to wriggle out. For the big finale of his act, he's thrown, handcuffed and strait-jacketed, into a compartment filled with water; he escapes from that too. And later, when he's in prison, he escapes from jail.
- The Escapist, from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, as well as one of his creators, Joe Kavalier.
- Sherlock Holmes has, in quite a few stories, proven himself to be notoriously hard to entrap. He sure as hell likes rubbing it in, too.
- Maren Amberson is one in Kenneth Oppel's novel The Boundless.
- The Discworld's Miss Tick is a witchfinder, that is to say, she hunts for young girls with a talent in places where witches are... less popular. As such, she is also an expert at untying knots underwater.
- In Victoria, Nazi elite soldier Captain Halsing not only manages to pick the lock on his leg irons but also to maul the three soldiers guarding him and escape with his hands still cuffed.
- The Pulp Magazine heroes of the 1930s and 1940s were, almost without exception, escapologists in addition to their many other skills. Kent Allard, Richard Wentworth, Richard Benson, or Dr. Clark Savage, Jr., no matter how securely bound and imprisoned, would all find a way to use their amazing talents and training to escape.
- Monk: Mr. Monk is actually very adept in escaping on three occasions.
- In "Mr. Monk goes to the Asylum", he manages to escape a straight-jacket and a padded cell.
- In "Mr. Monk is on the Run", Monk escapes a pair of handcuffs and runs into the woods.
- In "Mr. Monk and the End", Monk, poisoned, escapes his hospital room, to take vengeance on Trudy's murderer.
- Used as, ahem, a punchline in Big Bad Beetleborgs. The Villain of the Week has captured Flabber and has challenged him to a drawing contest. Flabber draws an abstract, brownish oval with a smaller oval at one side. Baddie complains, "Hey, what kind of an artist are you?!" The phasm replies, "An escape artist!" as the shape—a spring-loaded boxing glove—leaps out of the canvas and K.O.s his captor.
- Boardwalk Empire had a performance by Harry Houdini's brother who claims to be a much better escape artist than his famous brother The audience at the show seems unimpressed since he lacks the showmanship of his brother.
- This is all straight from history: The Great Hardeen actually invented a good deal of the tricks his brother made famous, but Houdini vastly eclipsed him with his idea to do his escapes in plain sight, making it clear that there was no trick involved and he really was that good at getting out of straight jackets and the like.
- Doctor Who:
- Jo Grant, companion to the Third Doctor, was very handy at getting out of handcuffs, manacles, and the like. The escapology course seems to be the only UNIT agent course that she excelled in.
- The Doctor themself; it helps that they've been trained by Houdini. This is subverted, however, in "Planet of the Ood" when the Doctor and Donna have been handcuffed.
Donna: You're the one with all the tricks. You must have met Houdini!
The Doctor: [struggling] These are really good handcuffs.
Donna: Well, I'm glad of that. I mean, at least we've got QUALITY!
- In Emergency, the paramedics have responded to escape artists who seemed to have been trapped in safes and unable to escape. However, they manage to escape on their own, and one them, played by Larry Storch, is grievously insulted by his wife calling rescuers when he had the situation under control.
- Taken with a different spin in the BBC drama The Escape Artist, in which it's more about escaping the law through complex understanding of it and being manipulative. There's more than one political escape artist; Liam Foyle starts as the escape artist but by the end, William Burton ends up doing the same thing to get away scot-free.
- Tony Blake in The Magician escaped from a South American prison with the aid of the fellow prisoner who taught him escapology. Tony continues to use his acquired skill to escape handcuffs.
- Would the titular character of MacGyver count? He certainly has the technical expertise, seeing as he can escape almost any dangerous situation using any means at his disposal.
- Parodied in the Monty Python's Flying Circus "Life of Tchaikovsky" sketch, in which a pianist freed himself from a sack while pounding out the opening chords of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in B-flat minor.
- In one episode of Night Court, Harry decides he wants to pick this up. Bull accidentally closes the safe door on him before he's ready to actually try the escape, leading the rest of the cast to try to disassemble the safe to get him out. When they do, the safe is empty - the janitor had a spare key and let him out while everyone else was getting tools.
- Anyone with a high Escape Artist skill in Dungeons & Dragons/d20 Modern. While it can be taken by anyone, rogues of all stripes are the ones that frequently have the most occasion to get out of sticky situations this way.
- Changeling: The Lost: By escaping the control of their Keepers, Changelings earn the right to escape from any and all bonds. By spending a point of Glamour, a changeling can automatically escape from any mundane binding or grapple. If the effect holding the changeling is supernatural, this triggers a Clash of Wills, and if the changeling loses the Clash he may retry as many times as he likes, without penalty, as long as he has Glamour to spend. The only things that can permanently hold a Changeling captive are iron or his personal frailties. Similarly, changelings can turn any closeable portal (doors, windows, manholes, anything), into a gateway into or out of the Hedge.
- In Matilda, the title character tells the story of a very skilled escape artist ("Escapologist" in the West End production) and his acrobat wife, whom we later find out were actually Miss Honey's parents.
- In one episode of The Real Ghostbusters, the team is having a hard time with a ghost that their trap cannot hold. No matter how many times they trap it, it keeps breaking out. They later find out that the ghost is the spirit of Harry Houdini; clearly, he hasn't lost his touch.
- In a Magnificent Muttley segment, Muttley dreams he's an escape artist, where his big act is to escape from a trunk within a trunk while suspended over a river.
- Blossom proves to be an escape artist in The Powerpuff Girls episode "Abracadaver" after the title villain hypnotizes her and flings her into an iron maiden.
- The Hair Bear Bunch finds different ways of escaping from Wonderland Zoo for a night on the town.
- Mr. Miracle displays his skills in an episode of Justice League Unlimited, where he's locked in a stasis chamber the size of a coffin, which is then frozen using a chemical that works like super liquid nitrogen. Then a large flying vehicle dumps an entire train on it. He still manages to escape perfectly.
- Perry the Platypus from Phineas and Ferb. His nemesis, Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, has a new trap for him in almost every episode, and Perry escapes every single one (except for that one time he was trapped in medieval stocks, but he saves the day while trapped anyway).
- Mr. Cat from Kaeloo. In one episode, Stumpy ties him to a chair inside a closed room. Stumpy leaves the room while carefully watching Mr. Cat and shuts the door. By the time Stumpy has spoken a few lines outside the door, Mr. Cat has not only untied himself but escaped from the room and stolen the car.
- Trope Codifier is Harry Houdini, the archetypal stage escape artist.
- Many Real Life stage magicians, including Criss Angel, David Blaine, and Penn & Teller. James Randi is maybe the most famous modern example, breaking some of Harry Houdini's records.
- Comicbook writer and artist Jim Steranko was an amateur escapologist, and an influence on both Mister Miracle and Joe Kavalier mentioned above.
- As a species, orangutans are Real Life escape artists. You can find several stories of orangutans wandering around zoos, and the general public thinks it's just a normal part of zoo life. Nowadays the way zoos test whether any (air-breathing) habitat is secure is to put an orangutan in it. If it can't get out, nothing can get out.
- Similarly, octopuses are extremely difficult to keep in a tank. They are strong enough to lift the lid off, and flexible enough to squeeze through extremely small holes.
- Jailbreaking seems to have run in the family of the Sassanian dynasty in the later ancient Persian empires, as not only did Emperor Kavadh break out of jail, but at least one person from the next 2 generations of imperial heirs successfully escaped from their prisons.
- Australian bushranger Joseph Bolitho Johns a.k.a. Moondyne Joe was so notorious for his ability to escape from prison that at one point he was kept chained to a window by the neck while a cell was put together for him. The colony governor was so confident that the cell would hold Johns that he said, "If you get out again, I'll forgive you." Then they put Johns to work breaking rocks in the prison yard under constant supervision...but neglected to clear the rocks away as often as they should, so Johns was able to build up a waist-high pile of rock and use it to hide that he was occasionally taking a swing at the prison's limestone wall, allowing him to break through and escape again.